Digital Preservation and the Power of Markdown

My markdown file in Notepad++.

My markdown file in Notepad++.

Many of us tend to think of digital documents as everlasting, and don’t put a whole lot of thought into how we’ll access our Word documents ten years from now. However, digital documentation tends to become obsolete within five years — as compared to a book, which lasts thousands, or microfilm, which lasts five hundred — and needs to be constantly refreshed. If you’re someone who is paranoid about losing your work, or who knows that they won’t remember to convert their documents every few years, saving important documents in markdown can be an easy way to ensure that you never lose the digitally-born documents that are most important to you.

There are a number of places to learn how to write in markdown. For example, you can take a look at ourĀ quick and easy guide to the basics of markdown, but that’s just one of many markdown language cheat sheets.

Write your document in a text editor — make sure that it’s in plain text mode, especially if you’re working with TextEdit — and save it as a .txt file. That .txt file can then be converted into other files with the styling in tact. To convert, you will probably need to download a specific piece of software. Most of us at the University of Illinois iSchool use Pandoc, but there are alternatives, if you’re interested. Using Pandoc and your command line interface, you can then convert your markdown file into whatever kind of file you need, whether that’s html, docx, pdf, or some future kind of file that we haven’t even heard of yet.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

The input I put into Command Prompt in order to have Pandoc convert my document from .txt to .html.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

My file as an HTML file, viewed on Internet Explorer.

While this may seem like a lot of work today, it’s helpful to remember that you’re doing this for the you of tomorrow. Important research, dissertations, or even love letters can get corrupted, lost, or just become obsolete. Saving things in markdown allows you a safer route to long-term preservation in an uncertain digital world.

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